Being neither the largest nor the smallest species of snake in the reptile hobby, the gopher snake isn’t known for its size, weight, or larger-than-life appetite like some species are. It does, however, manage to maintain a high level of popularity among hobbyists despite being largely ignored on “Top 10” lists.
Today’s question, though, is whether or not the gopher snake is a good choice for your next snake.
The following article is going to cover everything you’ve been wondering (and need to know!) about this underrated snake. We’re discussing gopher snake care requirements, temperament, handling, and health.
|Gopher Snake, Pacific Gopher Snake
|Pituophis catenifer catenifer
|3 to 8 ft
|10 to 15 years
|4 x 2 x 2
Gopher snakes (Pituophis catenifer catenifer) are medium to large, ground-dwelling (terrestrial) snakes. They are non-venomous constrictors that are found along the West Coast of the United States and Canada, with their range coming to an end in the southern portion of California.
These snakes are known for low maintenance requirements and beginner-friendly disposition. They reach a moderate size that is large enough to satisfy keepers who favor large snakes while also being manageable for new keepers.
The gopher snake requires a relatively low humidity level and moderate heat to thrive. Their enclosures should be large and enriched with a variety of accessories.
In captivity, they do well on a diet of rodents and small mammals, much like the majority of other snakes that can be successfully kept as pets.
Your gopher snake’s enclosure should be large enough that they can fully stretch out across two sides of the enclosure. This is a good estimate for the appropriate size but can be hard to measure as snakes rarely stretch completely out along the sides of their enclosures.
So, a general recommendation is that your gopher snake’s enclosure should be at least 4ft x 2ft x 2ft in size. This is to accommodate the fact that gopher snakes can reach sizes over 5ft in length, which requires a fairly substantial enclosure.
Since gopher snakes are terrestrial and don’t tend to utilize vertical space the way boas and ball pythons do, the more floor space you can give your snake, the better.
If you have a juvenile gopher snake, they can be kept in a 20-gallon aquarium or terrarium for a short period of time. When they begin to outgrow the tank, they will need to be transferred to something larger.
It’s often recommended to start with the 20-gallon tank and then, when it comes time to upgrade, move your snake into its adult-sized enclosure. This isn’t a set-in-stone rule, however, but it does help keepers save money and time and reduces your snake’s stress levels.
One consideration that comes with that of purchasing a gopher snake is the fact that, in many cases, it’s nearly impossible to find a commercially made enclosure that’s large enough in stores.
It’s not unheard of for keepers to have to purchase specially-made enclosures for their snakes, which, of course, come with a steep price tag. Before bringing your snake home, make sure you have a large enough enclosure or a reliable source from which to purchase one that is the correct size.
Gopher snakes require low to moderate humidity levels. On average, their humidity level should be no higher than 60% at all times. You can easily measure the humidity within your snake’s enclosure by using a hygrometer that you position in the middle of the enclosure.
At night, the humidity in the enclosure can be slightly elevated but should go back down during the daytime hours. Another exception is when your gopher snake is starting to shed.
During this time, you can up their humidity slightly to help ensure a healthy, easy shed. You can do this by spraying your snake’s enclosure with water more often or by providing a humidity box.
As gopher snakes are cold-blooded and cannot regulate their temperature within their own body, they require a temperature gradient within their enclosure. This means that, technically, your gopher snake’s enclosure should include at least three different temperatures — a low, a middle, and a high.
The low side of the temperature should sit somewhere between 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The other side, which should be the hot side or “hot spot”, should sit within the range of 83 to 85 degrees. In between these two extremes should be a temperature that falls between 75 to 83 degrees.
Your hot spot can be achieved by using either over-the-tank heating (OTH) or under-the-tank heating (UTH). OTH includes heating means such as heat bulbs, heat panels, and ceramic heat emitters. UTH includes heat pads and heat tape.
Gopher snakes – as all snakes do – benefit greatly from living in an environment that has plenty of enrichment and items that stimulate their brains. It’s because of this fact that we’d recommend not worrying too much about overcrowding your gopher snake’s terrarium, but worrying instead about making sure that there are enough items inside of it to keep your snake happy and healthy.
Cave-like structures that snakes and other reptiles use for hiding in, hides are used as both hiding places and napping spots, as well as safe spaces in which to prepare for catching dinner. Eerie snake enclosure should have two hides — one on the hot side and one on the warm side. Both hides must be large enough that your snake fits snugly inside without being too squished.
Hides that you can use in your enclosure include commercial made hides and caves, cork rounds, hollow logs, PVC pipes, and plastic storage tubs that you’ve cut an opening in for your snake to enter. If you choose to opt for PVC pipe hides, be sure that the diameter is large enough that your snake won’t get stuck.
Some snakes get too large to fit inside of commercial or simple DIY hides and require more complex, custom hide builds. Luckily, gopher snakes don’t reach sizes this substantial.
Gopher snakes are largely terrestrial, which means that most of their time is spent on land and on the ground versus in trees. However, it’s a good idea to provide your gopher snake with some opportunity to climb, should they get the urge to do so.
Even if the climbing objects aren’t used, they still look great in the enclosure and make it more cozy for your snake!
Since gopher snakes aren’t overly full-bodied, the good news is that it’s easy to find climbing objects in pet shops. In many shops, you can find bendable vines that are large enough to support your snake’s weight. These are made of a flexible metal and covered in a naturalistic-looking material.
Additionally, you can use branches that you source from the great outdoors. Look for logs and branches that are a suitable size for your enclosure and for the weight of your snake.
Don’t forget to prepare them before adding them to your enclosure.
If they are small enough, either freeze or bake them to kill any parasites that may be present within the wood. If you can’t do either of those things, it’s a good idea to let the wood dry outside for several weeks. Afterwards, you can saw, cut, chop, sand, and alter the appearance of your wood as you see fit.
Any good gopher snake enclosure will have some sort of substrate — a bare-bottom tank isn’t fun for any snake! Since gopher snakes are burrowers, you should have a layer of substrate thick enough for burrowing, as well as a substrate that holds the shape of their burrows relatively well.
A loose, particulate substrate is better for your snake than a paper-based substrate. A few suitable bedding options include:
- Aspen shavings
- Orchid bark
- Jungle bark
Whatever you use, don’t use sand. Sand can cause impaction in your snake if it ingests it. Your snake won’t go eating mouthfuls of sand, but can ingest it when the sand gets stuck to their prey items and swallowed.
It can also be a hazard when it gets stuck between scales, which can cause infections and irritation.
Snakes of all shapes and sizes appreciate a heavily planted terrarium. Gopher snakes are no exception.
So, when choosing plants, you’ll need to choose between live or artificial plants and stock up on whichever type you choose.
Doing some research before making a choice is a good idea. But, basically, the conclusion that has been drawn is that live plants are beneficial for oxygen and humidity but are easily squashed and ruined, while artificial plants are easy to maintain and very durable but don’t help with humidity or oxygen.
Live plants all require care and maintenance, just as your snake does. So, conduct research before adding any of the plants we recommend below.
Artificial plants, on the other hand, are extremely versatile and easy to care for since there is no maintenance involved in their care. In addition, they come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and colors. When adding one to your enclosure, make sure that there are no exposed wires or sharp parts that could harm your snake.
Additionally, leaf litter and sphagnum moss are great sources of plants that you can add. Both can be purchased in-store, but leaf litter can be collected outside during the fall season. Since they are ground-dwelling creatures, gopher snakes will have a lot of fun exploring sphagnum moss and leaf litter. They will even burrow.
Live Plants Suitable for Snakes
- ZZ plant
- Weeping fig
- Rubber plant
Unlike other reptiles such as bearded dragons, gopher snakes don’t require any specialized lighting. They don’t need UVB or UVA lighting to stay healthy. This being said, a bit of UVB lighting, should you choose to provide it, won’t do any harm to your snake. Just be sure to shut it off at night so that the light doesn’t disrupt your snake’s natural circadian rhythm, which can affect their eating habits and normal behaviors.
If you’re interested in providing a regular LED bulb for viewing purposes, feel free to do so. Again, just remember to shut it off at night.
A good way to remember to turn the lights on and off is by using an automatic timer. Timers can be programmed to stay on for certain lengths of time or, depending on the timer, turn on or off at certain times of the day.
In captivity, gopher snakes are more than happy to feed on a diet of mice and rats. In the wild, however, they feed on mice, rats, gophers, small lizards and snakes, frogs, and eggs.
Juvenile gopher snakes should be fed weekly, with feeding frequency decreasing as the snake gets older. Adult gopher snakes can be fed once every two to three weeks so long as the offered prey item is big enough to sustain the snake.
The smaller the item, the more frequently you should feed your snake. The appropriately sized prey item should be no larger than the thickest part of your snake’s body.
It’s highly recommended to feed your snake a frozen thawed (FT) diet over a live diet. Providing your snake with live prey can be difficult, as there are less available sources for live food than there are FT. FT can be purchased at nearly any pet shop, from independent rodent breeders, and many other places.
Live prey, on the other hand, is not often found for sale in pet shops. Many rodent breeds are also hesitant to sell their rodents to snake owners if the owner is intent on using the rodent as food for their snake.
In addition, when you start by feeding your snake live prey and later decide to switch, it can be very hard to get the snake to transition, which can be stressful for both you and your snake.
Gopher snakes have a fairly long lifespan — one that is made even longer when in captivity. In their natural habitat, most gopher snakes live 10 to 15 years. In captivity, however, where it’s safe and there’s no threat of predators or natural disaster, they can live for 30+ years.
You can ensure that your snake reaches the high end of this range by giving it the proper care that it needs.
Gopher snakes lay eggs. Females typically lay between 2 and 8 eggs that hatch within 65-75 days. The hatchlings are completely independent right from the moment of hatching and the females do not parent their young.
Female gopher snakes reach sexual maturity at 4 years old, while males reach this stage much earlier — at only 1.5 years old. In order to breed, both snakes must be healthy and of a good weight.
Breeding occurs in spring, with most eggs being laid in June and July.
Caring for gopher snake hatchlings is much like caring for adults. Of course, the hatchings are much smaller and, therefore, good at escaping. The enclosure you choose to use for your hatchlings should have a tight-fitting lid with ventilation but no large holes, as the hatchlings can easily get out of holes that are as large as their head.
They can live in a 20-gallon terrarium or aquarium until they start to get bigger, and you can keep them together for the first little while.
As for food, baby gopher snakes can eat the same things as their adult counterparts — only much smaller sizes. Before breeding your gopher snake, it’s never a bad idea to ensure that you have a reliable source of food that’s suitable for hatchlings. There’s nothing worse than panicking after your eggs hatch because you can’t find any food for your hungry babies!
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